I read two notable books over the last two months, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. They are both science fiction novels, the first is one of the most famous from the last era, and the second is a new entry that is making waves. Both of these great books are built around a similar storytelling objective: using a sci-fi story to argue philosophical points and explore ideas about humanity and society. While both books have interesting and new ideas, they go about very different methods of making their points.
Let’s start with Too Like the Lightning. Lightning’s plot is a little hard to sum up succinctly, but the general gist is it’s a political drama centered around a few key individuals that are shaking up a neat and ordered society. In Lightning, fast transportation everywhere on Earth has eliminated geographic boundaries, and national identities have dissolved and reformed into ideological identities. This allows the society to run much more smoothly and achieve greatness, or so everyone is led to believe. There is a lot going under the surface, and we slowly discover that things may not be as great as we have led to believe. Add into this mix an individual who has manifested the ability to magically bring the inanimate to life , and you get a confusing and exciting story with a lot of philosophical depth.
Lightning is one of the smartest books I have ever read. It subtly plays with the readers emotions, expectations, and engagement with the narrator to pull off some astounding reveals. At the same time, it makes a lot of interesting and well thought out arguments about humanity, society, the cause of conflict, and solutions for peace. The characters are astoundingly well written, and it introduces some of the best science fiction concepts I have read in awhile. However, my favorite part of the book is that Lightning not only makes really interesting philosophical arguments, but it weaves them into the story to make them more fun and exciting to read. It turns what could feel like a philosophy textbook into clever exciting work of fiction, and I love it.
Alternatively, Stranger in a Strange Land is a book from the 60’s that tells the story of a human raised by Martians returning to Earth. The idea behind the book is culture clash and observing a new way of looking at the world through the eyes of a man who is not constrained by the social conditioning and taboos that come with growing up in Earth society. It is incredible how good this book still is, but some of the arguments that Heinlein makes do feel a bit dated. However, many of the points that Heinlein tries to make still have a lot of teeth and I found it a compelling read.
You might notice that it took me a lot less time to summarize Stranger in a Strange Land’s plot than it did to summarize Too Like the Lightning’s. Despite this, Stranger is a much longer book than Lightning. This is because, unlike Palmer, Heinlein treated his science fiction setting as window dressing to his arguments. Large swaths of Stranger’s text are taken up by monologues arguing philosophical points and trying to convert you to Heinlein’s way of thinking. This might immediately sound like a negative, but I found a lot of his points to be well argued and compelling. The real issue I had with Stranger is it felt like it dragged compared to Lightning. The fact that Heinlein didn’t weave his points around a better story it just made the book feel slow and boring, despite some very clever points.
So in conclusion, both of these novels are excellent and are worth a read, but I definitely prefer Too Like the Lightning. Submerging your arguments in a great story is a much faster and more fun way to convert me than getting on a soapbox and shouting at me. Additionally, the plot of Lightning was so good that I am definitely going to have to dive into the sequel Seven Surrenders very soon. The Quill to Live recommends both of these brilliant novels, but Too Like the Lightning is definitely going to be on my list of favorite books.
Too Like the Lightning – 9.0/10
Stranger in a Strange Land – 7.5/10